Why rent a car when you can ride the rails to your own personal adventure?
Children's bakery, Vienna Christmas Market
RAILS TO A EUROPEAN HOLIDAY
By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
I spotted it about 40 yards away from where I was walking, and the sight of it in the bitter cold weather made me double my pace. I hadn't had a genuine European gluhwein, or mulled wine, for about a year, and on this cold, late afternoon in Vienna, the hot drink would definitely put me in a holiday mood.
The gluhwein offering was just what I needed. And I wasn't alone: scores of people at the Vienna Christkindlmarkt had the same idea, including three young college students from the U.S. who were studying in Italy and had come to visit Vienna and its popular Christmas market for the weekend.
I had a much longer trip in mind: using a Eurail Global Flexi Pass (good for 10 days within a two-month period) to visit three countries right after the Christmas markets opened on
November 30. I traveled to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, and all in 10 days. I not only succeeded in squeezing in plentiful tourist highlights such as the Vienna Christmas Market (I
actually got to three of them in the city), but was able to discover less-traveled cities and regions along the way between Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava and Budapest.
TRAINS TO THE CHRISTMAS MARKETS
I found taking the train to Christmas markets in these countries is relatively inexpensive and a lot less hassle than using short-hop airlines, or renting a car. The only caveat I'd
offer is that you should line up train schedules and tickets and hotel accommodations far in advance: the European Christmas markets are extremely popular, and large crowds can be
expected, which means hotels fill up in the cities fairly fast.
On the other hand, it's off-season for tourists, and hotel rates, airfares and probably food prices, are lower. I flew friendly KLM from Chicago to Amsterdam, then into Vienna's
Schwechat Airport. It is about a 16-minute car ride into the heart of the city from there.
The sight of the Vienna Christmas Market, one of Europe's most child-friendly, with children's baking workshops and a park full of amusement rides, is a memory kids won't soon forget. For adults, the main market, located in front of the huge city hall (the Rathaus), features dozens of decorative stalls offering tempting candies of every description, homemade candles, delicate lace, beautiful woodcarvings, intricate jewelry, handmade hats and gloves, natural wood Christmas tree decorations, tasty sausages, and, of course, the delicious gluhwein, which comes in its own collectible mug.
Within walking distance of the famous Ringstrasse, where my hotel was located (Radisson Blu Palais, Parkring 16), I was able to take in several more Christmas markets. I also visited
the new Vienna Choir Boys concert hall and stopped in for some Christmas shopping at Julius Meinl's, the famous gourmet store founded in 1862.
Other highlights to see here are Belvedere Palace (largest collection of Klimt paintings), the city's landmark church Stephansdom, Prater Park and the famous Ferris Wheel
(Riesenrad) erected in 1897, and the always fascinating Spanish Riding School. For a great cup of coffee or hot chocolate, an upscale atmosphere, and a typical Viennese pastry, try Cafe Central located in the Innere Stadt District at Herrengasse 14 in the former bank and stock market building, today called the Palais Ferstel after its architect Heinrich von Ferstel.
For an upscale Viennese lunch or dinner, try the Cafe-Restaurant Decor in the Augarten Palace, home to the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory since 1923. The modern designer
establishment is located in the west wing of the palace, a Baroque jewel set in the midst of a park. The Decor offers excellent modern cuisine, which is classic, local and seasonal at the same time. The food is naturally served on Augarten porcelain, and I had a most memorable meal here.
ON TO SALZBURG
Vienna's coffee shops, imperial buildings and the Hapsburgs were now in my rear view mirror, or should I say in my train's rear view mirror, as I hopped the 3:14 p.m. to Salzburg from Vienna's Westbahnhof station. The train, #568, arrived Salzburg 2 hours and 45 minutes later and was covered by my Eurail pass: I just put in my passport number, and dated the ticket prior to handing it to the conductor.
This "Sound of Music" city on the edge of the Alps still attracts thousands each year who visit the movie's filming locations, but there's also W. A. Mozart's birthplace on Makart Square, Mirabell Palace, Hellbrunn Palace with its trick fountains and
the impressive hill-top Hohensalzburg Fortress overlooking the city (a funicular will take you to the top if you don't want to walk). After checking in at the Hotel Mercure Central at Sterneckstrass 20, I checked out the city.
An hour-long Christmas concert at dusk at St. Peter's Monastery in the Romanesque Hall quiets the nerves and offers solace from the day's activities. Two female vocalists, a violinist and a pianist performed when I was there. Selections included Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming, While Mary Walked Through Thorny Woods and Vivaldi's Laudamus te.
For 500 years Salzburg has been brewing quality beer, so an evening dinner at Die Weisse at Rupertgasse 10 was on the agenda. This fun, casual beer restaurant in the Schallmoos District produces a specialty pale wheat beer, as well as Frizz, a bock beer paired with champagne yeast. Whatever you order, if it is like the dinner selection the waiter delivered
to me, it's bound to be well presented and delicious.
Advent in Salzburg is special: the Christmas market, dating from the 15th century, meanders through the narrow cobblestone streets, opening up on Cathedral Square to a large potpourri of festive stalls, good smells and good foods, and a friendly atmosphere. In the evening the market is filled with twinkling lights, and the large flakes of snow that drifted down over the market when I was there added to the celebratory nature of the event. Many cultural events also take place in Salzburg in the Advent season, such as performances at the large Festival Hall and special concerts in local churches.
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